Review of When Basketball Was Jewish

Stark, Douglas. When Basketball Was Jewish; Voices of those who played the game. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Index. Pp. 330. $29.95 hardcover. $29.95 eBook.

Reviewed by Murry Nelson

I looked forward to reading this volume after enjoying Douglas Stark’s book on the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association’s basketball team, The SPHAS, which was published in 2011, but I was very disappointed in this book. There are 20 interviews, made by at least four different interviewers and found in various collections or utilized in prior volumes. Stark contributes seven interviews conducted for his SPHA volume, yet he provides little else to contextualize the interviews. There is a three-page introduction to the book, which is surprisingly thorough, considering its brevity, but there is no concluding chapter, no footnotes nor bibliography. He does offer a paragraph of brief context describing each interviewee at the start of each chapter. Thus, it is difficult to refer to Stark as the author, but, rather, the compiler.

University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

The major shortcoming of this book is an almost total lack of contextualization for the interviews. The interviewees cannot be faulted for describing their views and impressions, but memory is subjective and becomes faultier over time. It is incumbent upon the compiler to augment the incorrect data or “myths” that are common throughout this volume, but that is not addressed; rather the interviews are given as “stream of consciousness”, without the benefit of knowing what questions were asked of the subjects, although many can be discerned. A major example of the “mythology” is the reference by many subjects to the National Basketball Association as beginning with the start of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1946, then, the absorbing of the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1949 to form the NBA. In fact, this was a merger, as I note, using documentation, in my 2009 book on the NBL, The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949. Additional context also is needed for the players referred to, such as Howie Dallmar, long-time Stanford coach; Matt Goukas, whose son later was a top player for St. Joseph’s and the Philadelphia 76ers; Joe Fulks, who is described a bit late in the book in one interview; Johnny Beckman of the Original Celtics; Johnny Logan, who became an All-Star shortstop for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves. But none of this information is provided by Stark, among other shortcomings.

There are also errors of fact, most notably names of individuals. Ben Kerner, the owner of the St. Louis Hawks is called David Kerner. Ralph Beard, a great All-American at Kentucky and one of the two most prominent players (Alex Groza being the other) involved with the gambling scandal that made them ineligible for pro ball in the early 1950s, is called Butch Beard in one instance, conflating the two great ball players, the latter having played 20 years later. The Tri-City Hawks, who became the St. Louis and, later, Atlanta Hawks, are described as being in two cities, Davenport, Iowa and Moline, Illinois, omitting Rock Island. Many of these errors should have been caught by the editor at Nebraska Press, but they went unaltered. The sloppy editing of the book and the lack of real contextualization dooms this book, which can only be really useful when read as a supplement to books like Stark’s prior book, those others that he cites in the “Acknowledgements” or that of Dick Triptow on the Chicago American Gears (1997) or those that I authored on the Original Celtics or the NBL (a bit self-serving, I know).

I should comment on at least a couple chapters. The one on Red Saracheck is much too long and has far too little on basketball. The last chapter on Dolph Schayes is excellent and includes useful contextual corrections or explanations in the text, which should show how much better this book might have been.

Murry Nelson is a Professor Emeritus of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of basketball, and he is the author of The National Basketball League: A History, 1935–1949 (2009), Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League (2013), and Big Ten Basketball, 1943-1972 (2016).

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